Why Pop Culture is a Classic(s) Matter – Catullus Spills the Tea: Sexually Based Political Satire in Ancient Rome

When they told me this issue was going to be NSFW themed, I immediately thought of Catullus as the perfect subject for this instalment of the column. I have to admit that my love for this clever, cultured, passional, and mischievous poet is almost unconditional. Despite being renowned mostly for his love poetry, which is guaranteed to make you think of at least one specific person when you read it, Catullus’ poems speak of many other themes and masterfully intertwine politics, high culture, personal feuds, and sexual innuendos in a way few poets were able to do both before and after him. But, as much as I adore Catullus’ romantic production (go check out Poems 5 and 85, you can thank me later), I thought this time I’d focus more on the political satire poems, and specifically on the ones where the satire is explicitly sexual. These are not only incredibly funny, but also show how much of our modern political humour and satire practices are based in classical culture.  

But before diving into the R-rated production of our favourite member of the poetae novi, I feel like it’s necessary to make a couple points about the history of satire and the attitude towards sexuality in ancient Rome. In fact, satirical poetry has a long and honourable history that starts with the poet Lucilius and that can be said to have endured until the present day: back then it was a few clever verses aimed at a public figure, later on it became printed pamphlets and cartoonish caricatures, today it’s salty Twitter feuds and memes about some politician’s questionable choices in hairstyle. The aim is always to have a laugh at some important person’s expenses, while simultaneously expressing an opinion on a contemporary theme or issue that the author feels the public should engage with. In Roman tradition, there is also an added function of reminding the subject in question that they are not, in fact, all that. For example, soldiers would come up with satirical songs and chants to recite for their general as he was celebrating a triumph, so that he would remember to be humble and that he owed his victory to his soldiers and not just his personal skills. And, obviously, most of those chants were very sexually explicit.   

This brings us to my second point, about the perception of sexuality in Roman society being quite different from what you would expect from an ancient civilization. For the cultured Romans of Catullus’ time, sex was a gift from Venus, the goddess of love, and as such it should be enjoyed and cherished almost as sacred. The poetae novi in particular – the literary group Catullus belonged to – also inherit some Greek notions on the subject, and their poetry reflects a relaxed attitude that doesn’t shy away from describing the physical and more crude aspects of making love to both young men and women. It was not unusual for people in the wealthiest circles to have many lovers, often of both sexes, and this often creates jealousies and intrigues that could rival today’s most dramatic soap operas. Catullus’ troubled relationship with Lesbia gives a good insight into these social sexual dynamics, and in Poem 15 he even has to plead one of his friends to stay away from his puer, the unnamed young boy he’s in love with.  

It is not surprising, then, that when he needs to attack a political figure, Catullus plays on their sexual preferences or exploits: in Poem 57, for example, Caesar is not only attacked as a greedy adulterer, but also as sexually submissive. In other words, just when Caesar’s political power is starting to rise, Catullus writes the equivalent of a viral post, casually reminding all the intellectuals in Rome that Caesar is a bottom. Caesar’s reputation as an adulterer and seducer was known in the city, even to his soldiers, who reportedly greeted his return to Rome with a chant along the lines of “hide your wives and husbands, people of Rome, the bald lover has returned”; so Catullus’ work would have merely been a reminder, clearly meant as playful, yet, it’s not hard to imagine the political resonance his satire would have had at the time. After all, Catullus doesn’t only target prominent public figures of his time like Caesar, Cicero or Mamurra, but also his own friends and acquaintances, much like today we would tag our friends in memes about Brexit. Yes, it’s funny, but it can also be a way to share and discuss our political views.   

Sexual jokes are, therefore, not only a form of humour, but also a way to engage the public in politics or to bring some celebrity down to the common reader’s level, and this is a function satire has preserved up until today. There can obviously be a discussion of the ethics associated with it, but in my opinion, satirical practices can be a healthy means of cultural expression in society, especially as a medium of popular dissent. Catullus is only one of many examples of poets, ancient and modern, who used satire to express their opinion on contemporary politics – the only difference is now we are less likely to use a poem to do so. The possibilities offered by modern media, in this sense, are almost infinite. What I believe is important is to remember that political satire, especially if sexually based, is not only meant for a laugh: it should also encourage the reader to think. And that is always a good skill to practice, be it ancient Rome or modern Glasgow. 

[Isabel Ferrari – she/her]

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